Let’s Talk Comics – April/May/June 2022

Let’s talk about the monster in the room. The horror genre, including movies, novels and short stories, radio shows, television shows, video games, and live action cosplay attract a particular kind of person. People seem thrilled to be shaken by stories that go beyond Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and SCTV’s Count Floyd.

The genre is subdivided into loose categories, including the traditional monster made in a dark, damp castle somewhere in central Europe; the natural horror that includes the likes of Jaws or the Andromeda Strain; the sci-fi horror of aliens, like, well, the Alien franchise; the horror of human-made fear, like the Saw series, Graham Greene’s the Ministry of Fear or that of M by Fritz Lang, or the Spanish Inquisition; and the horror of the supernatural, including the Exorcist. 

Tales of things that go bump in the night have been among us since at least Pliny the Younger in the first century A.D., a Roman author and politician who wrote a ghost story in his letters. The first horror book in modern literature is considered to be the 1765 Gothic story Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. The genre is broad and has deep roots in the history and the psyche of mankind.

Comics, being a versatile literary medium, dabbled in all that and more. Horror comics hosted not only some of the most controversial story lines, but also a body of work with exceptional art. Most titles from between the Golden and Bronze Ages are in demand and are held in devotion by horror fans. The challenge is finding original editions at affordable prices.

Without getting too gory, let’s focus on trends and some of the classic horror titles increasing in demand, as prices for some collectible titles on the retail market continue to rise to new levels. While some titles demand top dollar — even pushing the limits of market — others printed more recently languish in obscurity except among the most ardent collectors.

There’s a bit of confusion in the claim for the first horror comic. The first horror story seems to have been published by DC Comics in New Fun 6 in 1935, with a story by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introducing Doctor Occult. The first full horror comic was Eerie Comics by Avon in 1947. Prize 7, published in 1940, is credited with the first Frankenstein story.

A title that sold meant others publishers would follow, creating a genre that exploded in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. Some of the hottest horror books have nothing to do with monsters of the ogre variety, but of people doing evil things, creating an overlap with crime titles. These include the highly sought Suspense Comics 3 of 1944, Punch Comics 12 printed in 1945, Fight Against Crime Horror and Terror 20 of 1954, Captain America’s Weird Tales 74 and 75 in the late ‘40s, and Law Breakers Suspense Stories 11 also of the early ‘50s. 

One of the most graphic — if not jarring — covers in the genre was Tomb of Terror 15, by Harvey Publications (yes, Harvey of Richie Rich fame), an issue that is highly sought after by collectors. A 9.6 graded copy sold by auction in November for US$45,600.

Although E.C. Comics wasn’t the first publisher to publish horror comics, it certainly took it to a new level in the 1950s and is among the blue chips of the Atom Age. 

E.C. Comics, considered by many to have printed titles that are the pinnacle of the genre, is highly sought after by collectors, and demand high market prices for its horror books and related crime and sci-fi titles, including Crime SuspenStories. Some titles certainly sent a jolt through the anti-comic book crowd.

The horror titles, published by E.C. — The Crypt of Terror, Three Dimensional Tales from the Crypt, Three Dimensional E.C. Classics, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear — between 1950 and 1955 were pretty graphic for the era, as were its crime-related titles, but not out of the usual for the era.

They did, however, inspire a later generation of creators. It’s no accident that movie creators like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter wrote introductions for the E.C. reprints released in 2011. E.C. has a strong fan base because in part the stories were as good as the art, where many of its competitors failed to tell a good story despite the great art.

The wonderful E.C. bullpen of artists in the genre was stacked. They included Graham “Ghastly” Ingels, Jack Kamen, Jack Davis, George Evans, Wally Wood and Johnny Craig, with almost all of the work edited by Al Feldstein. The main horror titles developed a gimmick which eventually became the three GhoulLunatics: The Old Witch, The Crypt-Keeper and The Vault-Keeper, three witches which introduced stories and acted as hosts.

E.C. introduced The Old Witch in Haunt of Fear 16 in 1950, and The Vault-Keeper in 1948 in War Against Crime! 10, and The Crypt-Keeper first appeared in Crime Patrol 15 in 1949. It was a schtick that would outlast the comics and become hosts on television.  

One of the scariest stories was Foul Play, a baseball tale of revenge, by Feldstein and Davis that appeared in Haunt of Fear 19, an issue that conservatively sells for US$925 in top grade. The original cover art sold at auction in 2014 for US$55,268 and change.

The E.C. stories pale in comparison to the horror now available. However, the jolt it had created, along with other horror and crime titles published by almost all comic companies in the ‘50s, created a moral panic. Parents and professional crusaders urged the U.S. government — looking for a scapegoat cause for “juvenile delinquency” — to consider banning or heavily censoring comics. 

The industry responded by promising to police itself with the Comics Code Authority (CCA), eliminating stories about vampires, zombies, witches, or even using the words. Reality was also trifled with, as good people could never lose to evil. 

E.C. owner Bill Gaines eventually decided to forsake comic books rather than deal with censorship, some of it blatantly racist, as in the CCA’s objections to Judgement Day in Incredible Science Fiction 33. He shut down all of his titles except for MAD, a magazine-sized publication not policed by the CCA. Numerous other publishers either vanished or greatly reduced their output, including Marvel/Atlas Comics. DC had its super-heroes and licenced TV and radio shows to work with, and other companies moved away from controversial material. 

The genre was almost non-existent in comic books between the late ‘50s and the early-1960s, although there were titles on the edges, such as Classics’ Illustrated editions of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Gold Key’s Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery. 

Warren Publishing filled in the gap by producing three magazine-sized black and white horror comics in Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, which like MAD circumvented the CCA. Eerie Publications, not to be confused with the Warren title, reprinted pre-CCA era horror stories in various magazines between the mid-‘60s and 1981.

The self-censorship couldn’t survive for very long. Creative ooze at DC and Marvel began pushing the boundaries beginning in the late 1960s with its comic book titles, including Ghost Manor, Chamber of Darkness, Tower of Shadows, The Unexpected, House of Mystery and The Witching Hour, which was hosted by three witches a la E.C.: Modred, Mildred and Cynthia. The covers of DC’s House of Secrets show the strong influence of the E.C. covers.

One of the most coveted titles from the Bronze Age is DC’s The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, a Gothic horror line that only ran for four issues in 1972. It sat in obscurity for almost two decades until people really took notice of the strong art, solid story lines. It morphed into Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion, which ran for 11 issues between 1972 and ’74.

These comic magazine and comic book titles introduced phenomenal art by, among numerous others, Mike Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, Tony de Zuniga, Alfredo Alcala, Nick Cardy, Richard Corben, Luiz Dominguez and Nestor Redondo. 

The CCA watch over monsters effectively ended when Marvel introduced Morbius the Living Vampire in Amazing Spider-Man 101 in 1971, a character coming to the screen in 2022, followed by its Tomb of Dracula in 1972.

The horror genre is a strong staple of the comics business, from Archie Comics to DC’s Zatanna. The Walking Dead — which like many other recent titles spawned a TV show — continues to demand a high price for its issues. 

Keep an eye on those printed during the Bronze Age, between 1970 and 1984, as they are currently the most affordable. However, a collector will never lose out in investing in E.C. horror and key titles from the other publishers from the era before censors temporarily silenced “monster chiller horror” stories.

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